The World Health Organization’s data shows that the prevalence of obesity has broadly tripled since 1960, with over 650 million adults in the world considered obese today.
Obesity is defined as excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health. Although it is a condition that is largely preventable, both environmental and societal trends across the globe (excessive consumption of fatty and sugary foods and sedentary lifestyles) have made obesity an increasing burden on society. It is a major problem at many levels, first and foremost as a driver of mortality rates and medical costs, but it is also linked to significant pressure on food systems and productivity losses.
The most direct health consequences of obesity are cardiovascular diseases (mainly heart disease, hypertension and strokes), diabetes (400 million people currently have diabetes and this number is projected to increase to 700 million by 2045), musculoskeletal disorders, and certain types of cancer.
Globally, 8% of deaths in 2017 were the result of obesity, up from 4.5% in 1990. According to recent statistics, obesity is responsible for 4.7 million premature deaths each year. To put this number into context: it is close to four times the number of people that die in road accidents.
From the perspective of the UN SDGs, reducing health inequality means tackling malnutrition from both ends – overweight as well as underweight. In fact, most of the world's population now lives in countries where excess body weight and obesity kills more people than undernourishment.
The overall cost burden of obesity is difficult to estimate because there are both direct and indirect costs associated with it, but one thing is certain: they are rising. We believe that a clearer understanding of the true cost of obesity will spur larger and more urgent programmes to prevent and treat it.
Supportive environments and policies are fundamental in shaping people’s choices and enabling them to have a healthy lifestyle but investing in the right solutions can also help reverse the current trends.
Within the health and wellbeing theme, obesity is a challenge that can be tackled through impact investing. Supporting preventative solutions such as healthier nutrition options or even products that promote physical activity seem like the least costly and most effective way to help solve the issue. However, the truth is that investing in treatment solutions can prove just as effective in achieving meaningful improvements. A new class of drugs for treating type 2 diabetes, known as GLP1 agonists, have become available and are showing promising results in the fight against obesity, one of their effects in many cases being weight loss.
A prominent company in this area is Novo Nordisk, one of the world's leading producers of diabetes therapies. Long aware of the strong link between obesity and diabetes, the company has continuously supported better access to evidence-based care and has emerged as a leader in the development of this treatment.
With the backing of impact investing and careful oversight, this opportunity could significantly help reduce mortality and treatment costs associated with obesity over the next decade.